The Nobel winner for Celebration and Fun

Welcome to Tom Neiman’s world, where kids love to learn and parents skip down sidewalks

Last month, I wrote about the virtues of boredom, especially for kids, especially during the summer. That turned out to be a big mistake. Because then I actually had to practice what I’d preached.

The first day out of school, my three kids planned nothing. We walked to the library. Read books. Hung out with friends.

The 14-year-old and 12-year-old took to this like ducks to water; like existentialists to nothingness. I mean, they seemed alarmingly French, they were that languid. Our days passed slowly. Aimlessly. Snail-like.

Did I mention slow?

That was why my 9-year-old and I were so happy five days later when Southwest Community Education’s Super Summer Program finally opened its doors. We weren’t the only ones waiting. We were joined by hundreds of kids and parents and … you know how Holsteins line up at the barn door, an hour before milking, eagerly anticipating some relief? Okay, so it’s not a perfect analogy, but…

"We’re getting reports of mothers skipping to their cars and singing ‘Free At Last’ on their way out of the building," boomed Southwest Community Education Director Tom Neiman boomed into his microphone as the masses streamed into Armatage Elementary at 56th Street and Penn Avenue South. "So we’re asking for restraint. These celebrations can upset the children. So parents, please, walk — do not skip. And no singing until you’re safely inside your cars."

For 17 summers, Neiman has stood at the microphone, greeting, teasing and presiding over what has become one of the metro area’s biggest summer kids’ program. It attracts up to 3,000 participants over six weeks. This summer, the program is temporarily located at Armatage because Southwest High School is being renovated. Therefore, some Armatage residents looked a little shocked that first week as convoys of cars began jamming the streets in front of the school.

"What is this? The State Fair?" one homeowner asked as his block became lined with parked cars.

Actually, Neiman’s program is a lot like the State Fair. It happens every summer; kids love it; grown-ups either get it or they don’t and its chaotic charms are hard to explain to the uninitiated.

The program offers 100 different mini-courses for K-8 kids. There are classes on slime-making, Spanish, flag-football, fashion-modeling, bugs, fishing, chess, Ultimate Frisbee, homemade ice-cream, rocketry, J.R.R. Tolkien, pottery and on and on.

All are taught by a small army of laid-back, funny instructors — mostly high school and college students who took the same classes when they were kids.

It’s cheap and flexible. Kids go for a half-day or all-day; one week or six weeks. There’s no classes on Friday because…well, because it’s summer. So the weekend starts early.

The program has an old-fashioned feel. Every year, the fishing classes vow to catch Reginald, the 60-pound King of the Muskies who lives in Lake Harriet and teaches fellow muskies how to avoid the hook. Every day after lunch, kids and teachers play Ships Across the Ocean or Dodgeball out in the field. Every Thursday, the rocketry classes launch their wares and everyone — kids, teachers, parents, younger siblings — lines up for popsicles after class, ending the week with a mass of purple, blue and red tongues.

The program is as quirky, personal and playful as its leader. Neiman, 55, has spent the last 29 years directing his huge community-education program at Southwest High School. Many local residents believe if there was a Nobel Prize for Celebration and Fun, Neiman would end up at a Stockholm ceremony.

There isn’t such a Nobel and that’s too bad, because in addition to scientists, statesmen and artists, the world needs more people who celebrate life and invite everyone in. That seems to be Neiman’s mission.

In addition to the summer kids’ program, he organizes endless annual events for adults and families: sock-hops, Halloween parties, canoe trips, ski-trips and the upcoming July 28 Midnight to Dawn Bicycle Ride.

The ride is a typical Neiman affair — cheap, open to everyone, just a couple hundred friends and strangers pedaling around Minneapolis together in the middle of the night. Food is always a primary focus, partly because Neiman appears to harbor the souls of 10 Jewish mothers in one small man’s body. The ride stops at various all-night eateries and ends with a huge, cooked breakfast in front of the Lake Harriet bandshell at dawn.

"It’s easy to focus on crises; we’ll always have plenty of those," Neiman says, "but gathering people together and just having fun is how you build community."

You could say Neiman has come up with a pretty trivial way of improving the city. But the thousands of adults who join him every year for his classes and escapades would say you’re wrong.

So would the thousands of the kids who spend their summer days fishing for Reginald, building sculptures out of wood scraps, and mixing glue, water, Borax and starch into various slimes.

And so would all those mothers who can be seen outside of Armatage school, skipping to their cars and trying not to sing until they’re safely inside.

For more information about Neiman’s program, call 668-3100 or 668-3200, Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.

Lynnell Mickelsen is a Linden Hills writer who can be reached at [email protected] or c/o the Southwest Journal.